Sunday, December 4, 2022

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Western Electric, homelessness, nuclear war all up for discussion by Burlington city council on Monday

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Burlington’s city staff may need to brew a few extra gallons of coffee over the weekend as the city’s elected leaders prepare to dive into a rather formidable agenda that they’ve set for their next get-together on Monday.

That afternoon, Burlington’s city council is slated to hold a monthly work session on topics ranging from industrial redevelopment to homelessness and even nuclear de-escalation. The council, moreover, has its own self to thank for this unwieldy selection of items – each of which was proposed by one or more of the group’s members at their latest regularly-scheduled meeting last Tuesday.

The council ultimately settled on this ambitious to-do list during a free-form discussion that followed the completion of that evening’s official agenda.

 

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Nuclear weapons resolution
The first item the group agreed to take up at the work session was prompted by a request from Suzanne Shoffner, the former pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church who currently serves as a visiting pastor at Burlington-based Macedonia Lutheran.

Last month, Shoffner had approached the council during a designated public comment period to invite the city to join an international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. The pastor ultimately presented the council with a proposed resolution to this effect, although her remarks were largely lost in the clamor of a swearing-in ceremony that dominated the council’s December meeting.

Shoffner returned to the podium last Tuesday at the urging of council member Kathy Hykes, who acknowledged that she extended the invitation due to the unconducive circumstances of the pastor’s previous visit.

“I asked these folks to come back because, given what we were doing last month, it wasn’t a time to talk about it,” Hykes told her colleagues after Shoffner’s encore appearance. “I’m convinced,” the council member added, “that a war of nuclear weapons can’t be won, and it’s time for us to say that.”

Hykes’ plea for the council to denounce nuclear weapons may seem at odds with the professed desire of Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler to steer clear of hot-button issues that have nothing to do with municipal government. Butler had repeatedly stated this preference during his successful campaign against the city’s previous mayor Ian Baltutis, who had injected himself into various national and state-level controversies during his tenure.

Butler nevertheless agreed to put Shoffner’s proposed resolution on the council’s work session agenda after councilman Bob Ward echoed Hykes’ request to bring the matter to a vote.

 

Homeless, Western Electric, economic development
The council’s agenda for Monday continued to expand when Butler opened the floor to some closing remarks from the rest of the council. This invitation triggered an immediate response from the city’s former mayor Ronnie Wall, who retired from public office in 2015 only to return to the council as a regular member as a result of last fall’s general election.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Wall asked Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins to compile a list of the businesses with at least 20 workers that the city has managed to attract since January of 2016 – which more or less coincides with Wall’s absence from municipal government. Watkins agreed to present this inventory to the council during Monday’s work session.

In the meantime, Wall enjoined the rest of the council to hash out two other issues that routinely came up during his latest campaign for the council. One item he asked his colleagues to confront is a recent influx of homeless individuals into the city’s downtown business district.

Wall also encouraged the council to address the long-dormant state of the city’s old Western Electric plant, which had ranked among the city’s priorities even during his own turn as Burlington’s mayor.

This decommissioned munitions facility, which was once the beating heart of Burlington’s east side, has largely remained vacant since the federal government shuttered the plant in 1991. The General Services Administration ultimately divested itself of the site in 2004, giving way to a succession of private owners that never managed to successfully repurpose the sprawling industrial complex.

Over the years, the city has made several attempts to galvanize the revival of the Western Electric facility – most notably in 2019, when it convened a team of local residents and redevelopment experts to brainstorm a plan for the plant’s resurrection.

Wall’s call for the council to refocus its attention on this facility drew a mixed reaction from his colleagues, who acknowledged the very real and lingering problems posed by the federal government’s failure to decontaminate the site before it offloaded the property. The council members nevertheless agreed to put the item on their work session agenda in order to assess any options that the city may have at this juncture.

The council seemed even more eager to discuss the problem of homelessness in downtown Burlington.

Wall, for his part, suggested that the city should convene some sort of roundtable to give municipal leaders a chance to compare notes with representatives from Allied Churches, which operates a homeless shelter in Burlington, and the Burlington Downtown Corporation, which represents property owners within the business district.

“[We need] to get everybody in a room so we can resolve some of the issues that the merchants are facing,” the councilman told his colleagues last Tuesday.

Butler also alluded to some “code enforcement issues” that may also be germane to the discussion about homelessness – at least as they pertain to the city’s stock of quality affordable housing. Meanwhile, Hykes shared some insights that she recently gained from a fruitless quest to help one homeless woman find a place to reside.

“She has a job, and she has vouchers,” Hykes went on to recall, “but we have not been able to find anything, anywhere. Nothing. We’ve gone to apartment complexes all over the city, and we never get any further than ‘no, we don’t have anything.’

“I fully support having this discussion,” she added in reference to the issue about homelessness in downtown, “and asking what’s the bigger picture and what can we do.”

In the end, the council reached a consensus to tack the issue of homelessness onto its work session agenda. This decision nevertheless seemed to give Butler a moment of pause as he contemplated the increasingly voluminous workload that he and his colleagues had agreed to take on.

“If we look at what we’ve just asked to have put on the work session [agenda], there’s some pretty big lifts, some pretty big things,” the mayor said as he wrapped up last Tuesday’s discussion. “There’s some pretty proactive things that we’ve stated tonight that we want to get involved in…so we’ll go ahead and get those on the work session.”

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